ANALYSIS: Ross’ enrollment vision would change CMU — for better or worse

By John Irwin

Central Michigan University President George Ross said during his Wednesday State of the University address that CMU has no choice but to maintain an on-campus enrollment of 20,000 from here on out.

Ross spent the majority of his 2014 address highlighting university success stories from the last year, including the groundbreaking of the $95-million Biosciences Building to the construction of the College of Medicine’s Saginaw campus. It was a largely positive speech devoid of many specifics on plans for the future.

But Ross was adamant about one thing while speaking in front of a crowd of students, faculty and staff in Warriner Hall’s Plachta Auditorium: Enrollment numbers could pose significant problems for the university over the next several years, and it’s on everyone to figure out how to fix them.

George Ross
George Ross

Enrollment discussion was the heaviest part of Ross’ address. He was quick to note that although the CMU community should celebrate a 26.5-percent increase in freshman enrollment this year, the enrollment woes that plagued the university last year and led to a deficit and significant cutbacks will remain an issue.

A large incoming class “does not eliminate the challenges we had last year,” Ross said. “The reality of Michigan’s declining population means that our enrollment in three years, five years and 10 years still carries very serious and potentially negative financial implications.”

Ross said Michigan high schools are expected to graduate about 90,000 students in 2020, down about 25 percent from 2008. Historically, Michigan high school graduates make up about 95 percent of CMU’s enrollment figures, and about 3.2 percent of all Michigan graduates choose to attend CMU annually.

Because of that, Ross said the university’s projected on-campus enrollment numbers are expected to drop to about 17,500 students by 2020, down nearly 12 percent from the challenging 2013-14 school year (19,634) and the lowest number since 1998 (17,155).

“If we drop down to 17,500 students from 20,000 by 2020, that’s a $50 million loss in revenue,” he said. “That’s pretty tough stuff. But it’s an economic reality.”

Despite that, Ross said the goal is to keep CMU’s on-campus population at 20,000 by the time 2020 rolls around, in addition to increasing Global Campus enrollment from about 7,000 to 10,000 in that same timespan.

Ross was short on specifics as to how to keep enrollment figures that high, but he said a coordinated effort among the entire university, from himself to recruiters to faculty and staff, to attract students from in-state and out-of-state to CMU would make the goal achievable.

“Personally, I’m not OK with on-campus enrollment declining,” Ross said. “I don’t care what the predictions are. We’re capable of maintaining a 20,000 student enrollment.”

That’s a bit of a shift from what Ross had said in public previously. For instance, after enrollment declines led to an estimated $18 million deficit last year, Ross said CMU shouldn’t necessarily aspire to be as large as it had been in previous years.

“The university will be even stronger as we look to establish the best size for CMU,” Ross told CM Life last year. “In the 1980s, our on-campus enrollment stood at 16,000. CMU was vibrant, and CMU was successful.”

Ross said that he, the Board of Trustees and his administration had not yet come to a decision as to what CMU’s enrollment numbers should look like.

Now, he has come to the conclusion that on-campus enrollment should remain around 20,000 into the foreseeable future, a number consistent what the university has seen over the last several years.

Keeping enrollment that high will require a lot of work and planning, the details of which were barely present in his speech, and will almost certainly change the DNA of the university down the road.

As Ross noted, Michigan’s high school graduate numbers are plummeting, and if CMU’s on-campus enrollment numbers were to remain consistent with what they are now, that would require either lowering standards to lure more Michigan students in or more out-of-state recruiting.

CMU officials made clear last year that lowering standards would not be an option, so they have instead put their focus on bringing in students from out-of-state, and even out-of-country. Indeed, CMU’s international enrollment numbers are up nearly 40 percent year-over-year.

If those trends keep up, that will likely end up meaning CMU will be less dependent on Michigan students than ever before, even if incoming classes remain Michigan-centric. Add to that Ross’ hopes for 10,000 students enrolled into CMU’s Global Campus, and CMU will end up more diverse than ever before.

If executed properly, Ross’ vision can end up strengthening CMU. Maintaining on-campus enrollment figures means drastic, painful cutbacks can be avoided and incoming classes will have more diverse perspectives as the university plucks students from other states.

Where to go from here

But it’s going to be incredibly difficult, though by no means impossible, to achieve those goals.

Therefore, Ross, his administration and the Board of Trustees must be as clear and transparent as possible over the upcoming weeks, months and years about how CMU will achieve those numbers. The administration should continuously update its strategic enrollment plan, adjusting for new trends and ideas, and report those changes immediately to CMU students, faculty and staff. Ross and administrators should be upfront about any challenges CMU faces, and they should attempt to gather as much input as humanly possible from current students and faculty about their plans.

Students, faculty and staff should stay on the administration. They should urge Ross and administrators to keep the community up-to-date on where CMU stands with its enrollment goals and give as much input into their plans as possible. They should make voices heard and be a part of the process since they have a direct state in this. Sustained, poor enrollment figures can mean cut programs and fewer opportunities for a quality education. That must be avoided at all costs.

If the administration and university community are all on the same page, then the administration’s lofty goals suddenly look very achievable, and CMU can become stronger than ever before in 2020.

A failure to do so could mean a CMU bereft of financial security and a university community struggling to cope with massive cutbacks and a smaller campus.

CMU can avoid that, though. This is an opportunity to change CMU for the better, and Ross must lead the way.

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